Monday, February 14, 2005

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You try democratizing Belarus!

Peter Savodnik has a Slate essay comparing and contrasting US and EU efforts to promote a viable democratic opposition in Belarus. For the past decade, Alexander Lukashenko has pretty much ruled the country according to his own increasingly erratic whim. The Americans, the Europeans, and a fair number of Belarusians would love to see his back. However, as Savodnik recounts, there is a transatlantic split on how to promote democracy in Minsk:

As things stand now, the only money the European Union spends on Belarus is money that has been approved by the Lukashenko regime. These so-called Tacis (Technical Assistance for the Commonwealth of Independent States) funds, first appropriated in 1991, aim to foster democratic reform and economic modernization from within—that is, by working in tandem with government officials.

The problem, as anyone at the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry (or the U.S. National Security Council or, in a rare unguarded moment, the European Union) will point out, is that Lukashenko has no interest in working with the European Union. Why should he? As the Belarusian well understands, engaging with the West means becoming more Western. And that is exactly what he opposes. Sure, he's happy to get help cleaning up the Chernobyl zone or to send a few engineering students to France for the summer. But anything vaguely threatening (read: liberalizing) is verboten.

This is why, a few years back, Lukashenko expelled the U.S.-taxpayer-funded International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute from Minsk. Why? Because unlike the more humanitarian-minded Europeans, these groups foster real reform—you might call it revolution in slow motion—by building democratic parties, running polls for the opposition, and helping identify future leaders (as in the case of Ukraine's Viktor Yuschenko). Now NDI's Belarus desk is in Kiev, and IRI's is in Vilnius, where Belarusian reformers go when they need a conference room free of listening devices. European officials say this is evidence the American model doesn't work; Americans counter this proves they're doing something right.

While the European Union has spent plenty of money in Belarus since it gained independence from the Soviet Union—developing "civil society" and organizing educational trips, among other things, according to the EU Web site—it's unlikely that a single euro has been spent directly on the democratic opposition.

Savodnik makes it clear that he wants the EU to change its strategy -- but to be honest, I'm not sure what would be a better strategy. If the EU were to pursue a more "American" approach with its aid, Lukashenko would doubtless boot them out of the country as well. I'm no real fan of the EU's current strategy, but it's far from clear that there's a better alternative.

There are, alas, all too many foreign policy dilemmas like this one -- when all the policy options stink to high heaven.

Perhaps I've become too cyncical, however -- readers are encouraged to devise a better policy to promote democracy in Belarus.

posted by Dan on 02.14.05 at 11:11 PM


Methinks you have too high an opinion of your readers. Now if you had asked about something easier, like Zimbabwe, The Economist is always claiming that if South Africa just cut off their electricity, a lot of good could be done there. I've never heard why this wouldn't work, though I can imagine some reasons S.A. wouldn't want to.

posted by: washerdreyer on 02.14.05 at 11:11 PM [permalink]

There's always the Iraq solution (i.e. regime change).

But I doubt that we have any desire to be involved with Belarus.

Unless the citizens raise up and over throw Lukashenko, and establish a democratic government themselves, it's not going to happen.

posted by: West Coast Independent on 02.14.05 at 11:11 PM [permalink]

The value of the EU's money depends highly on what kind of state it helps build underneath the current regime. The actions and structure of the existing state bureaucracy will be a significant determinant of what kind of state appears when Lukashenko's time comes. Consider the difference between Russia and the Ukraine, or perhaps Romania and Poland.

Direct support for the forces of opposition should be handled by NGOs and, ah, unofficial channels (the EU, incidentally, should clearly consider adding some non-force-wielding intelligence services to its tool chest).

posted by: Anders Widebrant on 02.14.05 at 11:11 PM [permalink]

Actually, there's a big parallel to Zimbabwe's situation. If Belarus' neighbors closed their borders to her, then very soon Lukashenko would have no choice but to meet their demands. A credible threat to do as much would suffice. Well, Belarus' neighbors care, but they don't care that much. America can't change that fact.

Question meant to provoke: Savodnik advocates "everything short of arming an insurgency." Why stop there?

posted by: Dave Milovich on 02.14.05 at 11:11 PM [permalink]

Get Putin to turn off the gas. Directly comparable to the Zimbabwe idea.
Now, persuading Putin to do that is the difficult part.

posted by: Tim Worstall on 02.14.05 at 11:11 PM [permalink]

Flood the country with counterfeit belaroubles (or whatever they are called).

posted by: Moshi Mosher on 02.14.05 at 11:11 PM [permalink]

As the comments about Putin above illustrate, an awful lot of tinpot dictators depend on indulgent and powerful neighbors (see, North Korea and China). Economic sanctions won't work without Putin's help.

As to a more violent solution, presumably, we're not willing to provoke Putin by arming an insurgency in Belarus, even if that would otherwise be a good idea, which is - to say the least - debatable.

That being the case, the best we can probably do to support peaceful change without Russian help is just to send information in to Belarus (e.g., Radio Free Europe-style communications). The important first step was taken by unified US/EU support for democratization in Ukraine. The rest will be up to the Belarussians.

posted by: Crank on 02.14.05 at 11:11 PM [permalink]

Well, I think the U.S. needs to set some priorities. Priority #1 ought to be getting Lukashenko to shut down the mafia/arms proliferation business.

posted by: praktike on 02.14.05 at 11:11 PM [permalink]

There is no reason to arm the oppositon. I was in Belarus 6 years ago working on exchange programs and civil society building, and Lukashenko is not in the same league with people we should be arming the opposition of. The comment about Putin is exaclty correct, without Russia Belarus is nothing. Work on Russia to solve Belarus

posted by: Bart on 02.14.05 at 11:11 PM [permalink]

Let me throw out a devil's advocate-type question: why should we assume a Belarus independent of Russia is either necessary or desirable?

I understand concerns about precedent. But Belarus is not Ukraine, Lithuania or Uzbekistan. It is far more tightly connected to Russia economically, linguistically, and, obviously, politically than any of the other former Soviet republics. And with due regard for arguments like Savodnik's it doesn't look as if Lukashenko is going anywhere regardless of what American or EU policy toward Belarus is.

Ukraine required independence from Russia to move toward freedom; so did the Baltic countries. But Belarus is not moving in that direction and does not appear likely to. Perhaps its prospects would be better if all its problems were dumped directly on Putin's doorstep and its political evolution tied directly to Russia's own.

posted by: Zathras on 02.14.05 at 11:11 PM [permalink]

There is always the Ukraine/Georgia solution, in which we import into Belarus "activists" who can organize a popular swing against Lukashenko. The Rose and Orange Revolutions were successful, non-violent regime changes that brought important Caucasian countries into the West's pocket. Why not try to duplicate that success? In Belarus' case, it might take a few years to garner the popular support, but it seems a better solution than economic sanctions (which tend to hurt populations and strengthen dictators) or anything violent (which invites an increasingly pressed Russia to intervene).

posted by: Josh on 02.14.05 at 11:11 PM [permalink]

I know this is a radical idea, but why don't we just let the Belarusians decide their own political future? Wait I forgot, spreading democracy is the mandate of history. American freedom somehow entails using NED to export permanent revolution.

posted by: tbj on 02.14.05 at 11:11 PM [permalink]

"I know this is a radical idea, but why don't we just let the Belarusians decide their own political future?"

Umm, genius, reread the article. That's what we were in the process of facilitating before getting kicked out. Do you even understand the difference between free and unfree societies? Read Sharansky's book, you ignoramus.

posted by: JB on 02.14.05 at 11:11 PM [permalink]

If we could show them the power of freedom in the gospel of Jesus Christ, the people would throw off their shackles. A little-known story, but the Christians in Ukraine played a pivotal role in the recent democratization there.

posted by: daniel on 02.14.05 at 11:11 PM [permalink]

Although democracy is overrated in the promotion of freedom and capitalism is underrated (stealing this idea from an old Prof of mine, John Mueller), I think capitalism is the way to build a democracy.

I think freeing the markets of Belarus would be the best way to foster democracy. This is the same reason I am optimistic about the peaceful transformation of China from one party rule to democracy. A somewhat stable middle class from some economic growth would eventually place pressure on the government to reform. Economic stability also means there is a probable easy transition for the ruler to a comfortable life, as long as he didn't commit many crimes against his countrymen.

Since I'll assume Belarus has followed the Russian model of post-Communist development, complete with gangsters and a new class of oligarchs, perhaps the answer is the China model of transition. I suppose that its a big leap to say China is heading towards democracy, but what the heck, I'm young and optimistic. So bring back the Communist party!

posted by: cjfeldy on 02.14.05 at 11:11 PM [permalink]

What's wrong with following both the EU and US policies? I don't see any contradiction like that of "constructive engagement" versus economic sanctions. The best, not-so-great solution may be to put more effort into both approaches. And maybe shipping some of that PCB soup given to Yuschenko down to Belarus...

posted by: Brian S. on 02.14.05 at 11:11 PM [permalink]

Hi All from Ukraine. Of course, from down here I'd love any reason for more aid and democracy promotion money to come into the country. "We're inspiring Belarus now? That's great, hand over the cash."

But if I'm honest, the right thing to do is for the US and EU to hold off on the majority of goodies for a lot longer, until the actions match the words of the new government. By all means, the US should repeal the Jackson-Vanik Amendment that made it tough for Ukrainian exporters. By all means the EU should give Ukraine the status of a Market Economy. But then: wait. If the government is serious about economic reform, it will reform and it will do better.

We get to undergo a test of faith. If we believe in the superiority of free-ish markets, democracy and capitalism then we can wait confidently for Ukraine to prosper, perhaps as early as Belarus' election next year. Upstanding and methodic all the way.

Just please don't dismiss the possibility of Belarussian democracy because "Belarus is not Ukraine, Lithuania or Uzbekistan. It is far more tightly connected to Russia economically, linguistically, and, obviously, politically than any of the other former Soviet republics." as Zathras said.

Don't dismiss it because what we (me too) said about Ukraine up until November was: "Ukraine is not Lithuania, the Czech Republic or Poland. It is far more tightly connected to Russia economically, linguistically, and, obviously, politically than any of the other former Soviet republics."

posted by: Dan McMinn on 02.14.05 at 11:11 PM [permalink]

Oh, and nobody important the Orange Revolution. You Some Pora youth activists hung out with Serbian activists and talked shop. Some Ukrainian non-governmental and pro-democracy organizations were partial funded by US donors.

But what Josh said about:

"the Ukraine/Georgia solution, in which we import into Belarus "activists" who can organize a popular swing against Lukashenko"

is just ridiculous. Pora was a Ukrainian youth organization. The non-governmental organizations receiving foreign funding were created in Ukraine and run by Ukrainians.

So, for goodness sake, take the quotations marks off the word "activist" when you're talking about the thousands of Ukrainian non-governmental election observers and millions of Ukrainian protesters who did the real work to give Ukraine a real democratic election.

posted by: Dan McMinn on 02.14.05 at 11:11 PM [permalink]

I suspect that it will take several years before even a glimmer of change toward a more democratic society emerges in Belarus. For one thing, Lukashenko remains very popular in large areas of the country, not least because of his ability to pay pensions in full and on time, but also because of the low (relatively) cost of energy supplied by Russia.
Second, as clearly pointed out, NGOs and other civil society oriented groups are actively suppressed and both European and US organizations have been tossed out. NGOs receiving donor funding are exposed as 'spies' on state TV as well as being depicted as taking advantage of funding to buy multiple apartments, cars - you name it. The government policy is to disrupt and discredit.
I even suspect that Russia is losing some of its leverage in Belarus. Lukashenko just likes being president so much.
Perhaps one way to fund civil society programs and NGOs is to characterize funding under a business development/private enterprise training rubric and bring selected small groups to Ukraine and Poland for training. There is little government resistance to such programs. Exposure to other countries is an important catalyst for change. Lukashenko frequently tells the country that things are far worse in Poland, Ukraine and Russia. Getting them out and then back in might begin to change that perception. Nevetheless - I do think it will take some time.

posted by: Richard Sheaprd on 02.14.05 at 11:11 PM [permalink]

you get the guys together for a pow wow, have a couple of beers and come up with a plan.

it's incredibly important also to expose the nutcases who have been in charge of administering corrupt programs advertised to help the opposition movement there.

another idea is to bring lukashenko to trial for war crimes. the pace report on the disappeared is a good start, but the ace assholes in strasbourg need to be kicked in the ass. bush, too.

the 7,000,000 in fsa allocated for fy 2006 is a joke, and mccain should be pushing for bush to publicly ram the belarus issue down putin's throat in slovakia on feb. 24.

also, yushchenko & co. need to be coerced to translate promises into action - not like the poles, whose timidity and passivity in the late 1990s should make them blush.

more ideas later.

posted by: bob on 02.14.05 at 11:11 PM [permalink]

also, someone should mention to savodnik that the presidential elections in belarus will be in may 2006, not the fall.

educating western assholes who say they are interested in helping is key.

posted by: bob on 02.14.05 at 11:11 PM [permalink]

Not just Ukraine, but the United States and any other country with somewhat democratic institutions: RECOGNIZE THAT EVERY CITIZEN REGARDLESS OF AGE (YES, FROM 0 TO 18 Y/O TOO), HAS THE RIGHT TO VOTE. Families will be strengthen and healthy families support healthy societies. Check on the Movement in Italy "Un Bambino Un Voto". Ciao.

posted by: Michelle on 02.14.05 at 11:11 PM [permalink]

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